'We are at risk:' Leadership sounds alarm as COVID-19 cases surge among First Nations

·3 min read

WINNIPEG — Grand Chief Arlen Dumas shook his head in shock when he saw the line indicating new First Nations infections on a chart during the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs most recent COVID-19 meeting. 

“Up until today the average was usually slightly below the provincial rates, but today is quite alarming,” Dumas said Friday.

Indigenous leaders and health professionals are warning that the second wave of COVID-19 is building
quickly among First Nations on the Prairies. 

Canada's chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, reported Friday that 26 Indigenous communities had reported two or more active COVID-19 cases. Seventeen of those were in Manitoba. 

A surge of infections in Saskatchewan and Alberta is also affecting reserves. The most recent numbers from Indigenous Services Canada show 116 on-reserve cases in Saskatchewan and 79 in Alberta.  

Health officials say numbers shared by Manitoba's First Nations COVID-19 pandemic response team  indicate the impact is worsening. There are 516 active cases involving Indigenous people — 171 of them who live on reserve. 

Manitoba's test positivity among First Nations stands at 11 per cent. It's 8.6 per cent for the rest of the province.

“Things are going in the wrong direction, and they are going in the wrong direction fairly quickly right now,” said Dr. Michael Routledge, a provincial medical health officer for First Nations and Inuit.

The Manitoba government announced Friday it is tightening restrictions in most of the province after a record-breaking 480 new daily cases. Winnipeg is moving to red status -- the highest -- under the province's pandemic response rating. Health officials said the surge has put a strain on health care and some intensive care units are pushing capacity. 

Leona Star with the COVID-19 committee said there is significant concern over the numbers of First Nations people in hospital. Of the 104 people hospitalized Friday, 25 were First Nations, seven of them in intensive care. They ranged in age from 16 to 82.  

“The curve is going up,” Star warned. “We are seeing a large spike.”

Also on Friday, Ottawa announced an additional $200 million to fight COVID-19 in Indigenous communities. 

Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement to The Canadian Press that the department continues to work with First Nations to respond to the pandemic. That includes providing testing swabs and personal protective equipment. 

Spokeswoman Geneviève Guibert added that the department also recognizes the importance and sacred nature of cultural ceremonies. It will respect decisions by chiefs and council on how or whether to hold them, she said.

Many of the infections on reserves have been linked to funerals and religious gatherings. Pimicikamak in northern Manitoba is one of a handful of communities that went into lockdown after members tested positive following a funeral. Chief David Monias posted online that one member who tested positive had to be flown south for medical treatment. 

A church gathering in Prince Albert, Sask., also led to multiple positive cases on First Nations throughout the province earlier in October. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations held an all-denomination prayer on Friday calling for safety and protection for all community members. 

“We ask the entire treaty territory to pray for all those living in the shadow of the pandemic, those stricken with the coronavirus, and for the many who have died from COVID-19,” Chief Bobby Cameron said in a statement. “Additionally, pray for protection and good health during the pandemic.”

Dumas said Indigenous leadership in Manitoba has been adapting quickly to the growing numbers of positive cases. He said people want to keep each other safe and healthy.  

“We are at risk. We can’t be too lax on our vigilance.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2020. 

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press